Analysis: A complicated cabinet reshuffle ahead

After Liberman’s departure, Netanyahu decided, rather than give away the defense portfolio, he’ll keep it for himself for the remainder of this Knesset’s tenure.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles as he attends the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles as he attends the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also foreign minister, defense minister, health minister and immigration absorption minister.
He came by two of those portfolios involuntarily last week, when Yisrael Beytenu left the coalition, meaning Avigdor Liberman left the defense ministry and Sofa Landver was out at the immigration absorption ministry.
After Liberman’s departure, Netanyahu decided, rather than give away the defense portfolio, he’ll keep it for himself for the remainder of this Knesset’s tenure – legally until November 2019, but in reality probably much less time than that – and let someone else lead the Foreign Ministry that he has run for the past four years.
The main competition for the high-profile portfolio is at the top of the Likud list. Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz and Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan both say they have promises in writing from Netanyahu that they will be promoted to the next senior cabinet position that opens up.
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi had also been considered for the job, but Netanyahu dropped that idea after Hanegbi made a comment that Israel would not have agreed to a ceasefire with Gaza if Hamas had attacked Tel Aviv. His comment was deeply controversial, with some taking it to mean that lives in the South are somehow less important than those in Tel Aviv.
Likud insiders are predicting two scenarios for the portfolio.
The first is that Netanyahu loyalist Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz will be appointed foreign minister. This solves a couple of problems for Netanyahu. First, he won’t have to choose a side in the clash of the titans at the top of the Likud list, and make enemies shortly before the party will have to start its election campaign. And second, Netanyahu won’t have to be concerned about an overly independent foreign minister; Steinitz is more likely than Erdan or Katz to enact the policies Netanyahu wants. However, sources say Steinitz is very excited about the recent agreement he made to explore importing natural gas to the EU, and he would be hesitant to give up his current portfolio.
The second is that Katz will get the portfolio. Although Erdan beat Katz in the last Likud primary for the top spot after Netanyahu on the list, Katz is still seen as a greater power broker in the party. This is in part because Katz is the head of the Likud’s secretariat. Some say Netanyahu is wary of upsetting Katz not long before a possible election, because the secretariat will have to approve any appointments or adjustments Netanyahu wants to make to the Likud list for the next Knesset.
When this reshuffle happens, there will be a whole second round of appointments opening up. The Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry could open up, as could the Transportation Ministry, Intelligence Ministry, Public Security Ministry or Strategic Affairs Ministry. Would the Intelligence Ministry, revived after many years of being defunct specifically to get Katz into the Security Cabinet, fold again if he’s foreign minister? Would the Strategic Affairs Ministry be merged with the Foreign Ministry if Erdan gets the job – something that many people have called to do, anyway?
Either way, Netanyahu loyalist Tourism Minister Yariv Levin is a likely candidate for a promotion. He is not vying for the Foreign Ministry, and his dream job of justice minister is not open, but this wild card round is a good way for Netanyahu to reward someone who has been a close ally.
Two Netanyahu loyalists who Likud sources say are not in line for these jobs are coalition chairman David Amsalem and MK David Bitan, who used to have Amsalem’s job. Amsalem is fine where he is and isn’t asking for more at the moment, sources say. Bitan had been promised a ministerial post, but that was before he quit as coalition chairman because of ongoing investigations into alleged corruption crimes committed while he was deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion.
Then there’s the Immigration Absorption Ministry. Two people have expressed enthusiasm about the portfolio: Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Oren is easily the more qualified candidate, from both his life experience of immigrating from the US and many years of activism for immigrants, including during his time as an MK.
But Oren is once again caught between being a member of Kulanu, while also being someone Netanyahu trusts and values. Regardless of his qualifications, Netanyahu is unlikely to give a ministerial post to someone from Kulanu without the party giving up a different portfolio, and the chance of that happening is slim.
Hotovely is the more politically viable candidate because she is in the Likud. However, she has made a number of comments that US Jews found to be problematic, some of which Netanyahu himself needed to respond to, so that could be disqualifying.
If Hotovely gets the Immigration Absorption Ministry position, there is at least one replacement waiting in the wings for the job of deputy foreign minister. Likud MK Amir Ohana already told Netanyahu that he would like the job. The optics of Ohana, a gay father, representing Israel abroad could be a positive for Israel in the West. He has also been part of many Knesset delegations abroad and speaks English well.
Two other candidates being floated for this job are Jerusalem Affairs and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who held the portfolio in 2015-2016, and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel. Neither is actively vying for the job, and neither is willing to give up their current portfolios in order to get it; it would have to be an additional one.
Whoever Netanyahu chooses in this cabinet reshuffle will have to be approved by the Knesset. This is usually just a formality, but with the coalition’s one-seat majority, it may be easier said than done.
The one appointment Netanyahu absolutely must make before the coalition falls apart – as most in the coalition assume it will sooner rather than later – is himself as defense minister. His retention of the portfolio is only automatic for three months; it’ll end on February 18, three months after Liberman’s resignation took effect. If that happens after the Knesset is dissolved, then there will not be any political figures overseeing the military. This is because unlike in other government ministries, the Defense Ministry director-general cannot be in charge as he does not have authority over top military brass.
This gives Netanyahu a reason to complete the reshuffle soon, to make sure that at least the bare minimum – making sure we have a defense minister, even if he’s only part-time – gets done before this coalition falls.